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In The Presence and Absence of Hope

I wrote this piece last year as part of a creative nonfiction writing workshop. It was a great experience with some wonderful people, and it prompted me to start writing a diary of sorts, documenting the changes I was seeing around me, changes which all seemed inexorably linked to climate change. In this diary entry, I’m following the bees in my garden…and searching for hope.

A Sweat Bee

Sweat Bee (c) Missouri Dept. of Conservation

June 2022

After the icy rains of May, spring arrives in June. The days grow longer, warmer and the dandelions paint the space between the grass with drifts of yellow. Few of us in granola land are disobeying the new ecological rules: lawns are left unshorn, and their iridescent yellow blooms left to multiply as an early source of food for pollinators.

A week ago as I waited for my dog to empty her bladder in the scattered dribs and drabs that mark her territory, I scanned the dandelion drifts expecting to see a swarm of bees, but there was nothing, not a single pollinator. The next day I looked, and the next and the next and still no bees. Not even a butterfly. And as the days went by and the pollinators failed to appear, I began to panic.

I knew there had been a crash in the Manitoba honeybee population, but where were the wild bees and the bumbles? They can’t all be gone, I thought. I set up a wild bee hut last fall, my Jack Frost Brunera is covered in clouds of tiny blue blooms, and there are lilacs blossoming everywhere. Maybe I’m just walking in the wrong place at the wrong time of day. Maybe the bees prefer cool mornings to the midday sun.

The next day I ventured out at 9 AM to check on the progress of my peonies. Unlike the bees, the ants remain plentiful and thanks to their industrious munching the once tight green bulbs are slowly opening to reveal a luscious crop of oversized blooms. Satisfied that I would soon harvest my first bouquet of peonies, I wandered by the cotoneaster shrubs that mark the edge of my small yard. I sensed movement at the edge of my peripheral vision, so I stopped and saw what appeared to be three house flies nuzzling into the tiny pink blooms that cluster between the hedge leaves. But flies don’t drink nectar, I thought as I bent down to get a closer look. Nor do they have pockets of pollen clinging to their short back legs.

So I ran back to the house, fired up my computer, googled the words “small bees Canada” and there they were: “Halictidae, the sweat bee…easily mistaken for the common house fly.” Their name derives from the fact that they don’t just eat pollen and nectar, they must also supplement their diet with salt and water which is why they’re attracted to human sweat. And if you try to bat them away, the females sting and the longer its stinger lingers the more toxin the bee pumps in.

Who cares I thought. Let them sting me as long as they pollinate my squash plants..

Convinced that the appearance of three wild bees meant that more would surely follow, I carried on with my day.

A few days later, the pollinators in my garden still remained few and far between. By chance, I met up with a friend who knows more about plants and bees than I do. I told her about the sweat bees, while bemoaning the lack of pollinators in the neighbourhood. And when she responded, the recent flood and the prospect of more frequent and intense flooding predicted by climate scientists, collided with the worrying decline in native pollinators I was observing.

“A lot of wild bees overwinter in underground nests on the riverbank,” she said, “Most were likely drowned in the flood.”

My heart sank into my shoes.

How many strikes do these little creatures have against them? I wondered. Pesticides and herbicides. Mites and fungi. Humans and climate change. And if their decline continues, surely our decline will surely follow, because without these small ferocious little pollinators, our entire global food supply is at risk.

So, how do we cope with that knowledge? Do we simply push it away, reassuring ourselves that nature is still infinitely resilient, when we know somewhere deep in our bodies that the natural world simply can’t adapt fast enough to an environment undergoing such rapid change. Confronting that, living with it, means frequently being towed under by a tsunami of grief. But I’ve recently discovered that if I allow room for that grief, allow myself to truly feel it, it just might be the first step toward hope and resistance.


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